Paperless Office

Computers were supposed to eliminate the need for paper, but we have seen the exact opposite happen - office automation has allowed us to churn out paper at rates that the clerks of yesteryear could never have imagined.

Now, however, we firmly believe we have reached a point where the "virtually" paperless office can become reality, even for those who don't believe they have computer skills. Having put these techniques into action myself we have experienced a new-found freedom. A freedom from the in-tray and overwhelming paperwork. Paperwork should be the realm of bureaucrats.

But why would you want a paperless office? Isn't that something that big computer corporations try to achieve, albeit with limited success? Here's why you, as a forward and lateral thinking person, should think about changing to a paperless office:

Efficiency

Shuffling paper around is a waste of your time. Maybe a secretary can help, but secretaries were originally employed to carry out routine tasks. Today's jobs have become both specialised and varied to such an extent that finding the right secretary has become an expensive, if not impossible, proposition.

"If you want a job done properly, do it yourself". Otherwise, you will either have to compromise on quality, or spend so much time explaining to somebody else what to do, that you might as well have done it yourself. Do you know that feeling?

Portability

Once you have a true paperless office, you can put it in your briefcase and take it anywhere in the world. You can work where you like and when you like. This means that if you want to spend more time with your family, you can. If you hate cold weather, you can take your office somewhere warmer in the winter.

Security

We have entered an age where the most valuable commodity is information. Whether you are a self-employed consultant or the owner of a chain of production facilities, your most valuable asset today is your know-how and goodwill.

Information on paper is vulnerable and needs guarding. It can be accessed by commercial spies, big brother, disgruntled employees and the like. Information in digital form can be encrypted to military-grade standards for free and then hidden in cyberspace - and nobody but you has any hope of even finding it, let alone being able to read it.

Cost

A paperless office can save you a fortune. You can cut back on overheads like premises and security. You will hardly need stationery suppliers, post and couriers any more, and you will soon find that you can exchange city centre premises for something much better in the countryside at a fraction of the price.

Best of all, using the portability, you can move your base to a completely tax-free jurisdiction without having to be there all the time. That allows you to do away with not only a lot of taxes, but also the vast costs of complying with tax and accounting requirements! (But that's another story…!)

Of course, life will never be 100% free of papers... the proof of this is that the best-selling product on the internet so far is the good old book! But imagine a life where the papers you keep are those you want to relax with…

Reasons and methods of implementing a "paperless office" will no doubt vary depending on your work. In this article we will give some hints based on my personal experience as a freelance tax consultant, but we believe the techniques can be adapted to even the largest company. Similar methods are being used successfully by larger businesses: ABB, EasyJet and The Body Shop to name a few.

Preparation

If you're going to do this, you have to be 100% behind it. For those of us brought up on paper it is quite a radical departure. we believe it could best be implemented when you are moving premises, or setting up a totally new business. It could also be used by executives who are looking perhaps at retiring or taking on a consultancy role.

Internet - The Key to the whole thing

Many if not most readers will already be familiar with the Internet. If you are not, you should be. Believe me you will find it intuitive and simple to learn.

Its main and most obvious use is as a communications tool: e-mail. This will be the basis of your paperless office. E-mail is designed for such an environment. Some people print out their e-mails, but we think they are missing the point and potential of the thing. ALWAYS use e-mail as your preferred communication method.

You will need good encryption software. The standard is PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) which can be downloaded free by following the links at PGP You can learn it in an evening, or even less. Honest. Find a friend to help you if necessary.

The other use of the net is as a source of information. Papers used to be necessary so you could look things up. These days, the net is generally more up-to-date anyway, and you know you can gain access to your "library" any time, any place.

You will have guessed by now that we think a notebook computer is essential too!

Your Interface with the outside world

Some people you deal with will be quite happy with the virtual office concept, but others could have less confidence in you or your business because of it.

You will still need an address, phone, fax etc. For post, a "maildrop" is best. You can have an address is a prestige location, and there will always be somebody there to forward mail to wherever you like, which makes it much more flexible than using a PO Box or your home address. Many maildrops also rent offices by the day so you can actually meet clients at your address a few days each month if you wish. One of the larger networks is called Regus.

For your telephone and fax numbers, however, we do not recommend a j2 Global Communications. Instead use a so-called "unified messaging solution" such as j2 Global Communications (formerly JFAX.COM.) This company can give you, for $15 a month, a phone number in any major North American, European, Australian or Japanese city which you can quote as your phone and fax number.

What is unified messaging? Callers will think they are calling a professional office voicemail system or an ordinary fax machine, but in fact messages will turn up instantly in your e-mail in box. That's right, voicemail transmitted by e-mail. It works, it works well, and it works cheaply. With a few clicks you will hear the message on your computer's speakers.

You can of course add a mobile phone, but my experience is that people will treat it as a "direct line" for trivial questions which soon becomes an interruption to your work. However, depending on what sort of clients you have, it may be essential.

Keeping things off paper

When you think about it, most important things nowadays come in by phone, fax or e-mail. By implementing something like Jfax, you have already ensured that these communications arrive in a paperless format. You will soon become accustomed to replying to letters on screen, but even if you choose to print them out to work on, you can safely throw that paper away once you have finished with it because the original is on your computer and can be printed again if it's ever needed.

To file or not to file?

In my experience, most businesses hardly ever throw a piece of paper away. Not only do they keep everything received, but they keep paper copies of everything sent. What a waste of effort. They almost certainly produce every letter and invoice on computer so why not keep the copies on computer?

Worst of all, most manual filing systems we have seen do not even work, since neither filing clerks nor executives have the time or skills to cross-reference adequately. Have you ever lost something, only to come across it months later when you're looking for something else in the files? On a computer you just type a key-word into the "Find" box and the file appears then and there, even if you're in a hotel room in Outer Mongolia.

People are gradually accepting that copies of outgoing correspondence can be filed on computer without the need for a paper copy. As far as we are concerned, the same thing applies to incoming e-mails and faxes. That is, if you really need to keep them at all.

Purge that paper!

Next, you need to analyse what still reaches you on paper, through the maildrop. we believe it will be broadly divisible into two categories: we call them "admin" and "coffee table".

THE ADMIN PILE will be mainly bills, bank statements and government forms. Maybe a few people still write personal letters, but not many. My admin pile must be dealt with the same day it is received - either by replying, filing or shredding, or a combination of all three.

Replying to correspondence quickly impresses other people and gives you a real feeling of achievement. Often it is just a question of scribbling something or ticking a few boxes and stuffing it back in the mail. "Never put off until tomorrow, what you can do today."

Payments are forwarded to the bank of course. Bills? Best paid the same day, or even by direct debit where possible so you don't have to waste time paying them.

If you can't bring yourself to pay your telephone bill on time, you can still give payment instructions on receipt. Just tell your bank to delay it by 30 or 45 days or whatever you can get away with. Virtually all banks these days allow you to do this now either by e-banking, phone banking or just by letter (a form letter off the computer of course, where you just change the amount and fax it to the bank - no paper involved!)

Bank statements you definitely do not need to keep. Once they have been checked against your own (computerised) book-keeping they can be shredded. In the very unlikely event that you ever want a paper copy your bank can provide one.

Privileged as we are to live in a tax-free jurisdiction where we will never have to "prove" accounts, we don't bother to keep paid invoices or copies of my own invoices either. However, most of the world will have to keep this sort of thing in case of audit, so you will just have to bite the bullet and set up a small manual filing system. The same applies to some government documents, although even these can often be filed electronically now (Companies House in England, for example, is promising electronic filing very soon).

If you want to keep copies of other things, get a scanner. Scan the paper version into a digital format and then throw it away. Or, if we are just talking about a few documents, fax them to yourself instead using your old-fashioned fax machine - the effect is the same and a few phone calls are somewhat cheaper than a scanner.

THE COFFEE TABLE PILE is for things like magazines, newsletters, brochures, and junk mail. Once the admin pile has been dealt with, we can sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee while studying this material at leisure. There's information (= monetary value) in it all - sometimes something requires a minute's attention, sometimes an hour or more. The good stuff might stay on the coffee table for months, whilst the boring stuff will go in the bin the same day.

If you decide to take action on something (like asking for more information) do so. If not you will throw it away having read it, or - for the really exceptionally useful information - put it away somewhere, being sure to remember it's there!

Don't let your paper files take over!

You are probably in a total state of shock by now at my radical suggestions for eradicating paper. However, we did allow you some leeway in keeping a small manual filing system for odd documents and useful reference material.

This in itself will burgeon into something big if you don't keep it under control. It is therefore essential that you purge it every six months or so, throwing away anything which is no longer relevant. You will be surprised what you come across and you will think "now why did we keep that?"

But don't trust computers!

One of the main reasons why more people do not follow the advice above is because they do not trust computers. This is a well-founded concern and you certainly need to protect yourself against possible catastrophe.

Analysing the security threats, we find there are two different issues at stake: the risk that somebody else might get at your data, and the risk that you yourself might lose access to your data. Although one event could trigger them both, the two threats are basically different and require separate countermeasures.

The risk that somebody else might gain access your data is fairly easily solved. It should be encrypted and hidden. If there is a threat that your actual computer could be physically removed, there is ample software to protect data but you should take expert advice on this, as everybody will need a different solution.

To prevent the risk that you yourself could lose data, the solution has not changed since computers were invented. Backup, backup and backup. We are all lazy about doing it, but we all know we should be doing it. At the end of the day (every day!) it's a great deal quicker and simpler than filing papers!

Famous last words

If you're like us, you will think about this information for a long time before you act on it… by which time it could be out of date. But if you don't wish to implement everything right away, at least get yourself a Jfax number and make email your preferred method of communication, and you will probably find the move to a paperless office happening without you lifting a finger. And we hope you will enjoy a new-found sense of freedom.

Also visit our tutorial to the use of international maildrops.

Click here for a list of available maildrops.